‘A guy with nothing to lose, coming like a tank to go through everything’: Filippo Giovagnoli is plotting to shock Arsenal as Dundalk’s little known Italian boss hopes ‘outside the box thinking’ can down the Gunners
Filippo Giovagnoli, the man plotting Arsenal’s downfall in the Europa League on Thursday night, briefly considers what tempted Dundalk to pluck him from the obscurity of youth development in New York City.
‘A guy with nothing to lose, coming like a tank to go through everything,’ the Italian replies. ‘This is my character, more or less. They interviewed many coaches. Maybe they liked my profile. I was confident, I have a plan, I am organised, I am strong, and they picked me, so I was lucky.
‘There are so many good coaches in the world and they deserve opportunities. Just because they didn’t play in a big team, they don’t have that opportunity. But they have a better knowledge of people than those who play at the top level.
Filippo Giovagnoli is plotting Arsenal’s downfall as Dundalk visit in the Europa League
‘They are well-educated and they can be strong, they can manage. There are so many. I hope our story can be an example for everyone.’
Giovagnoli was — indeed, still is — director of coaching at the Metropolitan Oval Academy in the New York borough of Queens when his sporting director Jeffrey Saunders put his name forward to Dundalk’s American owners.
He had never coached an adult team but in August, when the Irish club sacked Vinnie Perth after losing in the Champions League qualifiers, he and his assistant Giuseppe Rossi (not the former Manchester United and Italy striker) were offered the chance to take control on an interim basis.
To call it a left-field appointment would be an understatement.
The charismatic Italian describes himself as ‘a guy with nothing to lose and coming like a tank’
‘They were looking for something outside the box,’ says Giovagnoli. ‘Somebody strong to come and see the team with different eyes. To judge only what was on the pitch, without any connections in Ireland. To see who is training hard and play the players who deserve to play, which we did. The players appreciate the way we are judging them by what they do on the field and nothing else.’
Dundalk’s hopes of retaining their League of Ireland title in a curtailed summer season are gone, but they won their Europa League play-off against KI of the Faroe Islands to extend their European campaign. They then took a surprise lead against Molde in their opening Group B fixture before the Norwegians recovered to win 2-1.
The new kids on the block are settling in by the Irish Sea and an unlikely Dundalk fan club has emerged in Giovagnoli’s hometown of Apecchio, 50 miles west of Ancona. ‘There is an unbelievable excitement there,’ says the 49-year-old. ‘There is a party every time we play and not only in Apecchio — even in New York, there are people at Met Oval connecting with us.’
The 49-year-old was plucked from obscurity in New York by the club’s American owners
Giovagnoli played as a centre back in Serie C, where he partnered a young Andrea Barzagli.
After acquiring his coaching qualifications, he moved to the USA as a director of AC Milan’s soccer schools before accepting a position at Met Oval in 2014. One of his first phone calls ahead of the move to Dundalk was — via a mutual friend — to Liam Brady, the legendary former Arsenal and Republic of Ireland midfielder.
‘Juventus was my team when I was young and he was one of my idols,’ says Giovagnoli. ‘The left foot of God, we used to say. I still remember his goal in Catanzaro to win the title.
‘We were listening on the radio every Sunday in a bar with friends and then watching the highlights at night, we were crazy for it. I told him about it when we spoke. It was nice to have this conversation.’
The Irish minnows are developing a following in Giovagnoli’s hometown of Apecchio
Giovagnoli is aiming for an unlikely shock victory over the Premier League side on Thursday
A strong European showing could secure Giovagnoli the permanent job. A result on Thursday night would go some way to achieving that.
‘This is a historic moment for the club, the town and the entire nation. The whole world is going to look at this small team from Ireland playing against a giant.
‘It is a big opportunity for the players to be seen in a football theatre and for me and Giuseppe to be there, coaching against Arsenal. We were hoping to play a big team and Arsenal came.’
‘We are looking to be competitive,’ says Giovagnoli. ‘It’s a tough group. But we want to compete. Why not? Maybe we can upset somebody.’